The internet may be vulnerable to state intervention, but demonstrators in Hong Kong have found a way around it to stay connected to each other. As pro-democracy rallies rage in the territory, protestors are increasingly giving up on SMS, emails and China’s social media Swiss army knife WeChat in favor of peer-to-peer mesh networking apps like Bridgefy and FireChat.
Downloads are up almost 4,000% in the past two months, according to measurement firm Apptopia. Texts, email and messaging app WeChat are all monitored by the Chinese state. Bridgefy uses a mesh network, which links together users’ devices allowing people to chat with others even if they are in a different part of the city, by hopping on other users’ phones until the message reaches the intended person.
The range from phone to phone is within 100m (330ft). The app was designed by a start-up based in San Francisco and has previously been used in places where wi-fi or traditional networks struggle to work, such as large music or sporting events. A similar app, FireChat, has already been used in previous protests in Hong Kong and also in Taiwan, Iran and Iraq.
Prof Alan Woodward, a computer security expert based at Surrey University, is not convinced such apps are really hidden from the authorities.
“With any peer-to-peer network, if you have the know-how, you can sit at central points of it and monitor which device is talking to which device and this metadata can tell you who is involved in chats. “And, of course, anyone can join the mesh and it uses Bluetooth, which is not the most secure protocol. The authorities might not be able to listen in quite so easily but I suspect that they will have the means of doing it.”The protest movement in Hong Kong grew out of marches against a controversial bill to allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. That has since been suspended, but the marches have continued and morphed into a broader pro-democracy movement.
Protesters have shown tech-savvy skills before, with pictures circulating on Twitter earlier this summer showing some defusing cartridges of tear gas with water bottles.